Holland participated in an exhibition game on March 11 at Franklin High School that pitted local officials and educators against the Harlem Ambassadors — a nonprofit organization that combines basketball skills and a positive community message: “Stay in School, Stay off Drugs.”
“This is exciting. It’s great to encourage the kids to have fun and see us out there having fun, instead of being in the positions that we hold,” Holland said. “And it’s also about getting to see your local elected officials get made a comedy show of.”
Big city dreams
Formed in 1998, the Harlem Ambassadors was created by managing/marketing executive Dale Moss and Lade Majic, an accomplished women’s basketball player. The duo aims to provide communities around the world with a playful, fun outlet to put across important ideals, many of which surround the notion that you can achieve your dreams with hard work and by not falling to the temptation of drugs and alcohol. The team is comprised of young African-American men and women who have played college basketball and earned degrees.
“It’s a blessing to be able to share this message with the world,” Majic said. “It’s something you can’t even dream about because you don’t even know it exists, that each night I perform I know God is helping me make a difference in all of these communities.”
Over their tenure, the Ambassadors have performed in all 50 states and in 23 countries, with a typical season tallying upwards of 220 events. And at the center of the multi-talented team is the key ingredient of children. Throughout the year, they work with thousands of kids, showing them useful skills to use on the court and off.
“A lot of people say these kids today are a lost generation,” Majic said. “They’re not lost, they’re looking to be found, and it’s up to us as adults to extend a helping hand to them.”
Taking the court
Standing courtside at the exhibition game, Franklin Chamber of Commerce Special Events/Marketing Director Cindy Cavender was all smiles as hundreds of parents and kids filed into the gymnasium. The chamber hosted the event as a fundraiser for their organization. They co-sponsored the evening alongside the Franklin High School Athletic Booster Club, with concession funds going to the club for scholarships and travel costs for the school district’s sports teams.
“It’s great for the kids to have somebody to look up to, positive role models who are as nice and genuine as they can be,” Cavender said. “The community is so great in supporting events like this in our town.”
This wasn’t the Ambassadors first time in Macon County. In 2009, they did a similar event in Highlands that attracted over 800 people. This past week, the team held assemblies and performances around Western North Carolina, with stops in Bethel and again in Highlands. Cavender pulled out the roster for the Franklin team, dubbed the “Dribblers.” It included local law enforcement officials, principals, coaches, teachers, the town attorney, and even the mayor, who served as “team photographer.”
“This is a show, so if [the town players] are coming in to play hard basketball, I think they’ll be a little disappointed,” Cavender laughed. “I hope it’ll be fun for them. We’re looking forward to tonight.”
Warming up at the far end of the court, Bekah Brooks, a teacher and volleyball coach at Franklin High School, was ready for the impending tipoff.
“I expect a lot of basketball, and a lot of comedy, which is right up my alley,” she said. “To me, the biggest thing about tonight is being connected to your entire community. I’m proud to be from Macon County. I went to Franklin High School, to Western Carolina University, and now I teach here.”
So, has Brooks been practicing leading up to the game?
“No, I haven’t picked up a basketball in a while,” she laughed. “I’m a little rusty, but I’ll be OK. I’m just glad to see a great crowd come out.”
Observing his town team, coach Gary Shields, a former principal at the high school and current member on the Macon County Board of Education, looks at having the Ambassadors in his backyard as a way to perpetuate a message of hope and opportunity.
“This is what our community is about, working with our young people and helping them,” he said. “It’s part of our responsibility to bring a wholesome message into our communities, and we do that via our schools.”
Did Shields give his team any advice for the game?
“I told them, ‘Don’t embarrass yourself, don’t embarrass your family and you’ve got to win,’” he said.
Let the game begin
With the tipoff, it was immediately clear how talented the Ambassadors actually are. Before the Dribblers could even break a sweat, the high-flying cosmopolitan athletes soared into the air, dunking over the local players, weaving around them, and blocking their shots. Before you knew it, the Ambassadors had logged a hefty amount of points on the board.
But all wasn’t lost for the Dribblers. They eventually figured out their strategy and strengths amongst their players. Passes between each other were crisp, with a handful of shots making it into the hoop, not to mention a keen attention to offensive rebounding and second-chance points.
And within the play were numerous staged interruptions by the Ambassadors, where they found ways to include members of the audience, kids and parents alike, in their antics. There were prizes given out, along with over-the-top theatrics that blurred the line between sports and a circus. Laughter echoed around the gymnasium, while seemingly endless smiles could be found on children in every direction.
By halftime, the score was a 31-15 Ambassador lead. Getting a snack at the concession stand, 6-year-old Jaydison Hurst seemed to love watching the Ambassadors.
“I like watching all of the tricks,” he said. “I really like the dribbling.”
Does Hurst want to be a professional basketball player when he grows up?”
“Yeah,” he shyly said.
“It’s great for the kids, and supports a good cause,” Jaydison’s mother, Tiffany, added. “Seeing his smile here is worth a million dollars.”
The Dribblers didn’t fair much better the second half, as the Ambassadors slowly pulled away on the scoreboard. But the points didn’t matter because the fun never stopped for both the players and audience. At one point, the game came to a standstill so the teams could have an impromptu football match, with a foam football spiraling around the gym. The Ambassadors emerged victorious as the final seconds ticked away.
With the bleachers clearing, dozens of kids stuck around to meet the players, get their photos taken with them and also share in the positive energy radiating from all in attendance.
“I love working with kids,” said Ambassador player Nicholas Simpson. “It’s priceless working with them. I just want kids to know that there is a way out, that they need to stay in school, stay off drugs and have a positive attitude.”
Scanning the gym, Simpson is baring witness to the fruits of his labors.
“Whether you’re black, white, Asian, Puerto Rican, it doesn’t matter, we can come together through these events and have fun being one,” he said.
“Everybody has a gift and although you can do anything, there’s one thing you can do with your talents and that’s to make a difference in your community,” Majic added.